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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Special teams

With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’€™ve broken things down on both sides of the ball [1]. Now, it’€™s a chance to take a look at special teams:

Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Kicker Stephen Gostkowski [2] (29-for-35 on field goals, 66-for-66 on extra points, 52 touchbacks on 112 kickoffs), punter Zoltan Mesko (60 punts, 43.1 average, 28 inside the 20), punt returner Wes Welker [3] (25 returns, 243 yards, 9.7 average), kick returner Devin McCourty [4] (27 returns, 654 yards, 24.2 average, 1 TD), long snapper Danny Aiken, special teamers Matthew Slater [5] (20 special teams tackles), Nate Ebner (17 special teams tackles), linebacker Mike Rivera (12 special teams tackles).

Overview: It’€™s been an up-and-down year for the Patriots special teamers. After a long draught, New England got a punt return (from Julian Edelman [6] against the Colts) and kick return (by McCourty against the Jets). There’€™s also the continued excellence of Slater, who is a tremendously disruptive force for opposing teams to have to deal with on a weekly basis. (Seriously, invest the $70 in NFL Game Rewind and watch the coaches’€™ film of his work. No surprise he was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl [7].)

There were also some struggles, particularly early in the season by Gostkowski, who missed what would have been a likely game-winner against the Cards, and missed a pair against the Bills. He seemed to right the ship late in the season — he’€™s made eight of his last nine field goals over the last five weeks of the regular season, including three from 40-plus yards.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots use their returners in the postseason. Since Edelman went down with a season-ending injury, they have utilized a handful of different players, but have appeared to settle on Welker as a punt returner and McCourty as a kick returner.

Best Moment: Three immediately stick out: the fumble which was returned for a touchdown by Edelman in the Thanksgiving Night massacre of the Jets, Edelman’€™s 68-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Colts, and McCourty’€™s 104-yard kick return for a touchdown in the home with over the Jets.

Worst Moment: Gostkowski’€™s 42-yard field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals ended up being the difference in a shocking September loss to Arizona. In the same game, Mesko had a blocked punt, which the Cardinals quickly turned into a touchdown.

By the numbers: Gostkowski’€™s 153 points is a career-high.

Money quote: ‘€œIt’€™s been a blast; I’€™ve had a lot of fun with these guys this year. It’€™s a group that takes a lot of pride in what we do and we have a lot of fun doing it. I think there’€™s a good combination of veteran guys with experience and young guys that are willing and eager and understand this is how they’€™re going to make their bones in this league and they’€™ve embraced their role. Overall, it’€™s been one of the most fun seasons I’€™ve had as a part of this team. Hopefully we can keep it going.’€ — Slater on working with this year’€™s special teamers.